Expanding Comfort Zones

Over the past couple of weeks I've had things to do in downtown Boston and the Financial District, so I have been going there more than usual. As I cycle through this dense urban area, my company includes mainly bumper-to-bumper car traffic and bike messengers weaving through it. It was a hot afternoon and I was waiting in the left lane at a red light - a black SUV behind me and a gray pick-up truck on my right - when it suddenly occurred to me: I was quite comfortable. Any moment now, the light would turn green and I would make a left turn in a way that would not conflict with oncoming vehicles. The awareness of this was not one of nervous anticipation, but one of calm preparedness. Perhaps I am no longer quite the "beginner" I still tend to think of myself as being.

I say all of this not to brag (and I am sure many would mock the idea of cycling in downtown Boston as any sort of accomplishment), but to point out that the "baby steps" principle really does work if you are patient and allow yourself to expand your comfort zone at your own pace. Last summer, I wrote this post about overcoming my anxieties and cycling outside my immediate neighborhood. Now those anxieties seem in the distant past, as I cycle all over greater Boston and beyond.

Of course the city's ever-expanding bicycle infrastructure helps as well. Not so much because the bike lanes are spectacular (note the amount of debris on the left and how close the car gets on the right), but because the sheer act of painting all sorts of bicycle signifiers seems to make drivers more aware of cyclists' existence in general. Overall, conditions for cyclists are improving here.

If I wanted to cross the river to Boston last year, I would cycle along the Charles River Trail at a snail's pace. Now I just go right on the roads and cross the main city bridges. It takes 15-20 minutes to get where I need to be, and I no longer feel anxious to cycle in this manner. I make no secret of the fact that I am a neurotic wimp with a poor sense of balance. So, at the risk of perpetuating a cliché: "If I can do it, anybody can." Choose a bicycle you love, take it one neighborhood at a time, and expand your comfort zone.

Just be sure to make way for ducklings...

And don't tease the swans!


  1. In my last job, my daily bike commute took me into the Fort-Point area via the financial district; an area I know quite well... nowadays I am around Copley, so my route has changed a bit.

    You are not the first to chime in about the new bike-lanes on Commonwealth Ave; and though I am happy that they are there and help to promote the awareness of bicycles on the road, I am not happy they are on the left side of the road... I know that there is parking on the right, and this keeps bikes away from opening doors and cars pulling into/out of spaces, but it just feels so counter-intuitive.

    Small peeve, actually.

  2. Lucas - I have mixed feelings about the Commonwealth Ave bike lane after cycling on it several times during the day and also at night. First off, cars get too close and they go *fast* because they are in the left lane. Cars have also cut me off when turning left despite all the cute "bike boxes". And at night, the bike lane is pitch black and a bike needs good lighting both to ride there and to be seen. Overall, I almost feel that I was safer cycling in the right lane before the bike lane's existence. But I will be open minded and give it a chance. Maybe cars will start behaving better once they are used to it.

  3. i got to experience the new commonwealth ave bike lane for the first time during the tweed ride. i liked it, and it was nice being out of the "door" zone. i can't comment on the traffic-- i was with a large group of people and therefore we dominated traffic.

  4. Wanted to chime in as a fellow neurotic wimp with a poor sense of balance (and deaf) that it is true that cycling can be more of a mind over matter thing than anything else and that experience does help. It's been easier for me to cycle on my own in more crowded streets after being in a tandem for at least three years, though I still stick to lower-traffic areas. Mostly this has to do with lack of a good cycling infrastructure in my town (think 'share the road' signs but little else).

    A good motivation helps too- these days it's just about not supporting BP oil, in light of the Gulf spill.

  5. I'm a very experienced cyclist and I get nervous in many situations among traffic so DO reward yourself for feeling confident and defintely don't beat up on yourself for being cautious!!

  6. I was having the same kind of thought last night as I was making a left turn in Inman Square, where Beacon hits Hampshire and Cambridge. There were a lot of cars, it was in the evening and in the rain, and I felt just fine, where I know I wouldn't have a few months ago. I'm still a bit farther behind in my "safe zones" progress, but was definitely inspired the other day when I looked at google maps and saw how much faster it would be to get to a place like the ICA by bike than MBTA! Yay for increased mobility!

    One thought that I always find helpful in terms of feeling confident in traffic is to remember that even when I'm feeling unsure of myself, I'm positive that drivers have seen and managed to deal with much worse cycling than whatever I'm doing. I mean, as long as I'm not weaving through traffic going the wrong way against the red lights, I'm probably one step ahead!

  7. I think this is one thing that the vehicular cycling lobby miss - that in order to get to the point where you're confident cycling in traffic, it helps if there's a shallow end of traffic-free routes and bike lanes for people to take baby steps into. Just because they've outgrown the need for bike infrastructure doesn't mean there aren't people who welcome it. And as you say, just the act of painting a bicycle in the road does a lot to make cycling look possible. As long as the lanes aren't actively dangerous, the more the merrier.

  8. It's great how this naturally happens - very empowering and encouraging.

  9. Slightly off-topic. Here's my favorite route from Davis Square to Harris Cyclery. It's long, but fast and very comfortable.

    1. Take Linear Park from Davis Sq to Alewife. I usually take Harvey St. from Mass Ave.

    2. Take the Fitchburg Cutoff Path from Alewife to Brighton St in Belmont. The entrance to the path is directly to the right of the Wyeth parking garage, across the street from the station.

    3. Take Hittinger St towards Belmont High School and then take the road in front of the school to Orchard St. On the way back, take Concord Ave and Underwood St. Alternatively use the scenic path along the southern edge of the pond.

    4. Take Orchard St all the way to Edward St and then turn left and take Waverly St to Trapelo Rd. Waverly St is narrow, but there is no parking and drivers are usually pretty calm and civilized.

    5. Cross Trapelo Rd and take White St to Sycamore. Trapelo Rd can be a bit intimidating, but just take it easy here -- the drivers aren't out to get you here. Turn right on Sycamore St and take it until you get to Belmont/Warren St.

    6. Turn right on Warren St and continue on it all the way to the intersection with Main St. This turn is a bit tricky on the way back because of the parked cars and the turn in the road. Overall Warren St is one of my favorites -- it's wide, doesn't have parked cars, and the drivers are calm.

    7. Take right onto Main and an immediate left onto Gore St. Enjoy the view. Continue straight onto Seyon st. Go really slowly here -- there is like a bazzilion potholes here.

    8. Keep going straight, straight straight as the street changes names. Turn right on Abermarle and right on Crafts. Then take a left onto Waltham St at the big triangle. Don't worry if you miss this turn, you can always turn right and make a U-turn after the intersection.

    9. Follow Waltham St all the way to Washington St. Harris will be on your right after you make the turn. Waltham St is another one of my favorites for the same reason as Warren St.

    10. Ta da.

  10. A great posting about how one can become comfortable cycling in traffic. Bravo.

    Debris in bike lanes - a minor ( or not so minor) problem with bike lanes is that the air flow generated by automobiles tends to "sweep" debris away from the path of the cars over times. Places where the cars don't go fill up with debris. Since the cars stay out of the bike lane, they invariably fill up with debris. Even if the bike lane is in exactly the spot you would cycle anyway, you'll find a lot more debris in that area after a lane goes in.

    If cities put in bike lanes, they also have to come up with a program of regular street sweeping.

  11. hey you are my role model. I'm not there yet as I haven't practiced much out of town and I ride a bit timidly with the kids in tow. But someday I hope to be there. and I agree that little steps get you far.

  12. Good point Townmouse...

  13. Herzog: Thanks for the tips! I'm actually going to use that-- maybe a weekend trip to visit the Pashleys?

  14. Exciting! Though, as of last week, it seems like they sold their green Princess Sovereign, but were assembling a bright blue Pashley.

  15. I like the idea of expanding the comfort zone too. I think I blogged about it but I'm too lazy right now to find a link. In addition to getting more comfy riding in traffic, there is also getting used to different kinds of weather- headwinds, rain, etc. The one thing in Texas I'm still not used to is lightning.... I can't see riding one of my steely mounts in a thunderstorm.

  16. Yay! Whenever I ride out of my comfort zone, and conquer a new route, I get this crazy sort of rush that makes me want to get out there and do it again. :)

  17. This post is comforting for people like me who are probably more at the level you describe yourself being at last year, so thank you! Although I ride daily into a downtown area (Vancouver), it's usually the same route. I've tried to tackle other anxiety-inducing routes by repetition: the same route over and over until it feels familiar. It's good to have a reminder that progress *will* happen.

  18. Herzog - Interesting, will try this route. We recently rode to Belmont Wheelworks via Walden St & Huron Ave and it was a much nicer way to go than the previous routes we'd tried.

    Re the Princess: I was at Harris 3 days ago and they did not have one on the floor, so you may want to call first. They do get new ones in stock regularly; I am told that Pashley has a hard time keeping up with demand for this model!

  19. Mandy - Yup. I began cycling last spring after not having been on a bike for 13 years (since high school). It has now been 14 months or so since that point.

    Tackling anxiety-inducing route by repetition works for me too!

  20. You are describing the process as I experienced it,
    and my wife is undergoing the same changes, too. Nicely done.

    Oh, and between watching the smile on my face on yesterday's ride, and your pics of "Velouria" up above, Herself wants to try a loop-frame rod-brake 28" wheel roadster now. The Indian Princess restoration/modification scheme is on hold for a while.

    I'd blame you for it, but I'm too grateful.

    Corey K

  21. BTW if someone does use the route I described, please take a moment to admire my favorite Art Deco bridge along the way! :D

  22. Oh, yay! A friend just posted the link to your blog on Facebook. Perfect timing, as I'm just beginning riding here in Charlotte, NC. It's funny, when I very first started out, I saw a rider in line at Starbucks, and told him I was just getting started. We chatted a bit, he left, and actually came back in to say, "Ride where you're comfortable. Don't go where you don't feel at-ease. You'll widen your circle over time." It was *perfect* for me to hear right then. Sounds like you started out the same way! I have good balance, but I'm not yet very strong or fast, I have to walk up most hills. I can't wait to go through your archives! Thanks so much for writing about your process.

    Now, of course it's summer here and the heat & humidity start *early*, but I'll bike when I can & walk & take the bus otherwise.

    I'm glad my friend posted your link!


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